Michael Pavitt

There are now less than 50 days until the start of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the challenges seem to have piled up for organisers recently.

The focus over the past weeks has largely centred on diplomatic action and the whereabouts and safety of tennis player Peng Shuai.

The number of countries to announce diplomatic boycotts of the Games has steadily increased. Lithuania were the first to publicly declare it would not send Government officials to the Games, but confirmation of the United States' expected diplomatic boycott led to several countries following suit.

Australia, Britain, Belgium, Canada and New Zealand were among them, while Latvia’s ambassador will reportedly miss the Games due to COVID-19 concerns rather than diplomatic reasons.

It is worth wondering whether other nations would have adopted Latvia’s approach had there not been ongoing concerns over China’s human rights record. 

Unanimity has not been reached in the European Union, however, with France, Germany and Italy among those to indicate they will still send Government officials to the Games in February. South Korea has indicated its desire to attend the Games as part of efforts to boost a peace process with North Korea.

The human rights situation will undoubtedly be a continuing area of discussion in the build-up to the Games and when the legacy of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics is considered.

However, for organisers, the recent emergence of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19 will present arguably their biggest headache in the final weeks of preparation.

Several issues remain outstanding with less than 50 days until Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images
Several issues remain outstanding with less than 50 days until Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) rightly pointed out that we have been here before with Tokyo 2020, with the Delta COVID-19 variant having become prominent in the build-up to the Games in the Japanese capital city.

The potential to tweak COVID-19 regulations required for attendees was highlighted, similar to how several heavily Delta impacted nations were required to meet extra criteria to participate.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons there has been minimal discussion over whether Beijing 2022 will take place, compared to the anxiety and doubts which surrounded Tokyo 2020. The situation does feel somewhat familiar, with organisers still hopeful of having domestic spectators in attendance at the Games.

"There is no decision at this point in time," Christophe Dubi, IOC executive director for the Olympic Games said at the start of the month. "We are getting closer. Everything is planned for operation with spectators, including concessions and separation of floors. I would expect a decision to be made in the next few weeks."

The presence of spectators is likely to be a story that goes right to the line, given the increasing curbs on attendances at sporting events elsewhere due to Omicron. After all, Tokyo 2020 had hoped to have some spectators present until just 15 days prior to the Games.

As the weeks go on, it feels harder to imagine a sizeable spectator presence at Beijing 2022 considering China’s tight COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainty over the impact of the new variant.

Restrictions have also been a source of concern from National Hockey League players, with several seemingly getting cold feet over attending the Games.

The presence of the NHL stars after their absence at Pyeongchang 2018 would be a fillip for Beijing 2022 and the IOC. However, the agreement reached in September is looking less than secure currently.

The NHL has been forced into a series of postponements after players and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, despite the league having reportedly close to a 100 per cent vaccination rate.

Tighter restrictions have been introduced for the coming weeks, including wearing masks at team facilities, banning eating or drinking in indoor restaurants at away ties, along with daily testing and virtual meetings. The measures will be similar to those in operation in Beijing, with the second edition of playbooks for the Games having been released on Monday, but they still pose a question as to how realistic it is that the players will travel.

Participation of NHL players at Beijing 2022 remains a doubt in the final weeks before the Games ©Getty Images
Participation of NHL players at Beijing 2022 remains a doubt in the final weeks before the Games ©Getty Images

It was worth noting the IOC highlighted measures around isolation at the Games in a tweet later in the week, which came shortly after an NHL Players’ Association meeting regarding the Olympic Games. The document pointed out the conditions regarding isolation at Beijing 2022 should an athlete test positive, which appeared as an attempt to allay fears expressed by NHL players that they could face quarantine periods of up to five weeks in China.

The playbooks show that athletes that test positive will be discharged from isolation when their body temperature returns to normal for three consecutive days, respiratory symptoms improve significantly, lung imaging shows improvement and two consecutive negative PCR tests are recorded within an interval of 24 hours.

People who test positive but are asymptomatic will be tested every day, beginning 24 hours after their last test. Asymptomatic athletes could be discharged after recording two consecutive negative PCR test results with at least 24 hours between the two samples and no other COVID-19 symptoms.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman suggested it will be up to players to decide whether to attend Beijing 2022, with the Players' Association currently maintaining the plan is still to participate.

NHL players are not the only ones to have expressed concerns over potential conditions in Beijing, with Germany's four-time Olympic gold medallist Natalie Geisenberger having claimed she was weighing up her participation after falling foul of close contact rules during a recent test event.

The IOC and Beijing 2022 will likely placate some concerns in the build-up to the Games, but there is a considerable list of challenges to contend with in the final weeks. 

This includes ongoing concerns over the transportation of Games stakeholders, with the scarcity of flights remaining an issue. Complaints have also been raised by some over the impact of COVID-19 on qualification events or the vaccination status of athletes preventing them from participating at competitions.

And so, with human rights concerns still remaining a prominent issue, as well as the wellbeing of Peng, with Omicron now truly in the mix, it appears it will be a rollercoaster ride towards the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.